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A still from the video uploaded on the Maggi Facebook page during the lockdown. Credit: MeriMaggiIndia/Facebook
A still from the video uploaded on the Maggi Facebook page during the lockdown. Credit: MeriMaggiIndia/Facebook

The home chef pandemic cure

Perhaps psychologists need to reconsider the tenets of culinary therapy and help us shrug off the modern-day guilt of eating not-quite-right

After cooking every day for six weeks I can confirm something I always suspected: Cooking is not therapeutic, stress relieving or relaxing.

“Psychologically, cooking is what’s called behavioural activation," a writer theorized on Huffington Post a few years ago. “To put together a good meal, you have to be engaged and present. You need to taste, make snap judgements, add or subtract heat. You can’t just stare out the window and think about your ex." Oh please. Give me daydreaming about exes over cooking any day. And snap judgements and adding/subtracting heat are an integral part of the former activity too.

Culinary therapy (cooking and associated activities like gardening) is increasingly being used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. I wonder if they also include activities such as cleaning up, serving the food, doing the dishes and taking out the garbage? Which reminds me, my kitchen garden has mostly perished in the lockdown, probably because my cook was the one who actually took care of it.

I think psychologists need to reconsider the tenets of culinary therapy. Instead of making us cook, why not encourage us to relive our fondest childhood food memories and help us shrug off the modern-day guilt of eating not-quite-right? I miss my best growing-up meals—white rice topped with crushed roasted papad, or doused liberally with tomato ketchup or drowned in creamy vegetable soup. My diet had zero wholegrain and I lived to tell the tale.

My pre-lockdown version of this therapy—guaranteed to make me feel warm and fuzzy—was simple. Watch back-to-back episodes of Nigella Bites/Feasts and then do absolutely nothing with the recipes imbibed.

“When will this pandemic of home chefs be over," journalist Jairaj Singh tweeted last week. He’s right. The husband is one of the few parents still posting about their children after spending several weeks in 24x7 confinement with them. Everyone else mostly shares stunning images of the elaborate recipes they casually conjured up.

It’s obscenely decadent when you consider the scenario playing out on the streets outside our homes. Migrant workers, who lost their livelihood overnight when the government announced a sudden lockdown in March, say they worry hunger will kill them before the coronavirus does.

Many of us are discomfited by such truths and prefer to focus on “good news". Like the American “banana bread epidemic" on social media, a reference to the fact that banana bread was the most googled recipe across all US states through the month of April. Everyone, it seemed, was soothing themselves with the same confection.

The Indian version of that is Maggi of course. At Rs12 for a 70g pack, it’s this country’s favourite packaged comfort food. I am giving the affordable, zero-effort instant noodles my 2020 Food Award even though we eat Maggi only at picturesque dhabas on mountain trails. Everyone has their patented Maggi recipe (invented with everything ranging from vegetables and cheese to garam masala, Italian herbs and tandoori mayonnaise).

“The single greatest Indian spice mix is the sachet that comes with Maggi masala (noodles). It is incredibly versatile and improves any dish it’s added to," techie and food science enthusiast Krish Ashok said on Twitter. Look up his formula for making this masala. Then use on everything.

Nestle, which manufactures Maggi, has confirmed that sales have gone up during the lockdown. Last month, probably in response to a production slowdown, the company released a video on Facebook where Maggi workers wearing masks hold placards saying things like, “We are doing everything to bring Maggi to you", “Stay safe, Maggi is coming" and “Aao Maggi Banayein! Because Our Country Needs Us!"

While I am not in favour of overusing exclamation points in advertisements, I am certainly for stripping down meals to their most basic avatar.

“Finally, a dinner that it didn’t take 3 hours to cook," writer Mitali Saran posted on Facebook group Simple Recipes for Complicated Times.

“Ingredients

Small pack yoghurt

Teaspoon of honey

Teaspoon

Method

Combine."

If you agree that the lockdown should not be spent labouring over food, then these recipes my friends shared might help inspire you to chart a path that leads away from the kitchen.

Here are some things they have been living on in recent weeks: Rusk and butter; Parle-G biscuits; cereal and milk; bread with jam or spread or fresh, chilled whole milk malai (yes, you read right); original one-pot comfort foods like khichdi or curd rice; rice with butter and a tadka of Maggi masala; bhujiya sandwich; oven-roasted potatoes; oven-roasted anything; pasta with olive oil, garlic and seasoning; boiled chana salad; peanut chaat; buttered tawa toast with sugar or chaat masala or both; bhel (replace chutneys with chopped coriander, lime, green chillies and salt).

If you feel like you need to put in a little more effort, try cold poha (wash and drain poha, add salt, pepper, chopped coriander, green chillies, salted peanuts and grated coconut) or a smoothie (banana, oats, water, cocoa powder, seed mix) or even bread pudding, which supposedly requires blink-and-it’s-ready-level effort.

So now that you are going to stop cooking and photographing everything you cook, how will you spend all that time?

PS: I used this column as an excuse to take the day off from my cooking chores while the husband, who writes a fortnightly cooking column, laboured over a multistep family recipe with his mother.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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